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Getting a coronavirus test is a test in itself

Medical staff perform drive-through COVID-19 testing at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque on Wednesday. Lines of vehicles formed before the site opened. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Unless you really need to get tested right away for the coronavirus in Albuquerque, I’d advise you don’t. The heat is in the triple digits, tempers are flaring as people are being turned away, and health care workers are visibly under tremendous strains. The city’s limited walk-up testing sites likely require screening or pre-registration, and the lines at the drive-through sites are unbelievably long with no guarantees you’ll make it to the front that day.

My experience with coronavirus testing in Albuquerque this week has been an odyssey of scattered testing sites and patchwork clinics amid the surge of COVID-19 cases.

My personal quest for the swab began Monday morning after I had a weekend bout with my belly. I had experienced some COVID-like symptoms and was told I needed to get tested to return to work.

No sweat. “Brb,” I thought. I had seen the drive-through clinic in the Optum parking lot of Journal Center and thought I’d jet over there and be back in time for Jamie’s daily lunch special in the newspaper’s cafeteria.

Well, the tents were still in the Optum parking lot, but not a swabber in sight. I waited for a while, let noon pass, and still nothing. “OK, so it’s not going to be so easy,” I thought as I headed to Balloon Fiesta Park for some mass testing.

I followed the COVID testing signs. At the top of the hill overlooking the park, I could see what appeared to be hundreds of vehicles in lines snaking toward the tents. When I got to the parking lot entrance around 1 p.m., a security officer told me they were full for the day and I’d have to come back the next day.

So I pulled aside, did some research on my phone and called the city’s 311 number to get some help. The attendant tried to help, but we soon realized my options for the remainder of a Monday were very limited. NextCare had some sites, but they wouldn’t accept my insurance. Walmart had advertised sites, and I registered online, but then learned their only testing site was in Gallup. The drive-through site at Lovelace Hospital closed at noon. I saw CVS had a testing site on Montgomery, so I drove there. The pharmacist said CVS would only see me by appointment, so I pulled over in the parking lot and scheduled one.

“All set for noon tomorrow,” I reported to my supervisor.

But when I showed up at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, I learned CVS had run out of supplies and cancelled my appointment. So began Day 2 of my quest for the swab. Undeterred, I made another appointment with CVS for 12:50 p.m. Wednesday. That was going to be my backup plan if all else failed Tuesday. Which it did. I went to Balloon Fiesta Park again, but this time, it was the early afternoon and the signs said “Forget about it,” or something like that.

I was running out of options and fast. About that time, I got a text message from CVS saying my Wednesday appointment had also been canceled, again due to a shortage of supplies. Day 2 was a bust.

I began Day 3 Downtown at the Lovelace drive-though site and it didn’t look good. By 10 a.m., the line of vehicles extended off Central for blocks. I was among hundreds of vehicles slowly creeping up Edith toward Central. Most drivers were kind enough not to block intersections, but that created opportunities for not-so-kind drivers to cut into the line at intersections. There was no traffic control in sight.

Around 11:40 the line started moving swiftly. A security officer at Central and Edith told everyone they had ended testing for the day. Hundreds of people were turned away after waiting hours.

So, back to square one and the internet. I saw UNMH was testing, but only people with symptoms, so I called to confirm and drove there. After exiting the parking garage, I walked up to a screener, who was turning away a gentleman who appeared to be in his 50s. I felt a repeat performance coming as I waited my turn. But I told the screener about my abdominal spell and made it through.

So about 100 of us lucky ones waited our turn after making it through a wooden door that looked to have been hastily erected near the hospital’s entrance. Loud generators powered equipment inside a tent where the testing was taking place, and most of us had to wait outside because of a lack of seating. A large fan, a few chairs and some water bottles distributed by a nurse helped those of use waiting in the sun, many apparent college students in their early 20s.

The hospital staff was very good – sweating and scrambling to keep up with the flow of patients but in good spirits. Two-and-a-half hours in, I was so close to the swab I could taste it.

Then, a woman wheeled in a young developmentally disabled woman, unable to use her limbs, hold her head upright or speak. The crowd made room for her inside the cramped tent, and a nurse came over to welcome the girl, who sat next to me in the waiting area. I looked over at her, smiled under my mask, and realized just how light my COVID testing burden had been.

The girl was tested, a couple others, then me. It stung for sure, but it was over.

I tested negative and now I’m back to work.

I saw the testing process in Albuquerque up close and personal over three days, and it is lacking. The state is encouraging everyone to get tested, yet the current system obviously does not have the capacity to accomplish that. Massive amounts of time and energy are being wasted with people waiting fruitlessly in long lines. The system needs to improve, and quickly. I wonder how those without vehicles are able to get tested.

It was encouraging to see so many people trying, but discouraging to see how many were turned away. And discouraging to experience the wasted hours and gasoline it took to succeed.

After three days, I still can’t answer the simple question, “Where should someone get tested?”

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page writer Jeff Tucker at jtucker@abqjournal.com.

 

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